European World Cup Playoffs: Four Things To Watch

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By then end of the day Tuesday, the World Cup participants from Europe will be decided. Here are the four things you to be looking out for.

Ronaldo v. Zlatan II

World football has made a lot of this battle and with good reason – Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are two behemoths of the game. And on Tuesday one of them will find himself condemned to a summer of watching the 2014 World Cup on the couch. The edge right now is in Ronnie’s favor, after his header was the decisive goal in Portugal’s 1-0 victory last Friday in Lisbon.

Most seem to think that’s that and Portugal has run away with this thing. But that’s a mistake that Ibra has pounced on countless times throughout his career. Give him the excuse and he’ll do it again. Especially when buoyed by the home crowd in Solna and especially when his side aren’t supposed to win.

Which they’re not. Portugal are hands-down the better side, which is precisely (and ironically) what has put them in the current predicament of needing to qualify through a play-off. Brace yourself.

Tough Times In France

It’s nice to have France around if for nothing else but a reminder that no matter how bad things are with your national team, they could be a heck of a lot worse. Despite having talent for days, Les Bleus screwed the pooch last week when they dropped the first leg of their playoff to 0-2 at the Ukraine.

To most people the result, while unfortunate, wouldn’t be the end of the world, especially considering the second leg is in Paris. But to the French, it’s curtains, as only 16% of the public (as surveyed in Le Parisien) believe Les Bleus can advance to the 2014 World Cup.

16%? That’s disgraceful.

With that pathetic amount of confidence, perhaps France should lose and end all of the misery that team has caused since their boycott antics back in South Africa 2010. Ask any good Irishman and they you France shouldn’t have had that honor either – but that’s a whole other piece of crepe.

Go On, Iceland!

If you have a heart then you have to support those loveable blondes to the north, Iceland, as they take on Croatia. Strákarnir okkar (Our boys) managed a 0-0 draw in Reykjavik meaning it’s all to play for in Zagreb on Tuesday. While winning away will be an uphill battle for Iceland, Croatia’s previous home form will give the underdogs confidence as the Croats previously lost to Scotland and Belgium during home turf qualifiers.

If Iceland do succeed in winning they will become the least populous country (at 320,000 inhabitants) ever to play at a World Cup. Fascinating stuff.

Not Your Father’s Greece

So long the butt of all stylistic football jokes in Europe, Greece appear to have finally shed their brutally defensive style in favor of flair and goals. Last Friday they were a joy to watch, suffocating the Romanian defense with clever through-balls and inventive play that resulted in three well-worked goals and a 3-1 victory.

The effort marked the first time the Greeks scored more than twice in a competitive game since a 3-1 win over Malta in June 2011. Oh, how they times they are a changing! And while they may fall into a more defensive scheme to preserve the precious lead, don’t be surprised if come June people are using words like “quality” when describing Greece.

Well, perhaps that’s a bit much. But they are a much improved side and worth a watch, if only for a quick bit.

Watch Live: Southampton vs. Tottenham Hotspur

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Hugo Lloris and Christian Eriksen miss out as sickness-hit Tottenham Hotspur visits struggling Southampton at St. Mary’s on Sunday (Watch live at 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com)

WATCH LIVE ONLINE

That opens up spots in the lineup for Michel Vorm and Moussa Sissoko, as Spurs aim to go level on points with fourth-place Liverpool.

Saints dipped into the drop zone when Stoke City won on Saturday, but will sit 14th if they can spring a home win over Spurs.

Mauricio Pellegrino is giving Mario Lemina and Manolo Gabbiadini, as well as in-form James Ward-Prowse, the starters’ chance to stop the rot. Southampton is winless in 10 league matches, but has drawn three of the last five.

LINEUPS

Southampton: McCarthy, Cedric, Stephens, Hoedt, Bertrand, Lemina, Romeu, Ward-Prowse, Tadic, Hojbjerg, Gabbiadini. Subs: Forster, Pied, Bednarek, Davis, Boufal, Redmond, Obafemi.

Tottenham Hotspur: Vorm, Aurier, Sanchez, Vertonghen, Davies, Dier, Dembele, Sissoko, Dele, Son, Kane. Subs: Gazzaniga, Foyth, Trippier, Walker-Peters, Wanyama, Lamela, Llorente.

Making sense of the Silva firing: Should’ve let him walk?

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Watford fired manager Marco Silva on Sunday, blaming Everton’s recruitment of the Portuguese boss for his failure, and it seems his replacement has already been identified as Javi Gracia.

I mean, holy smoke: So much for “easy like Sunday morning.”

The Hornets have been poor for some time, and their drop from chasing an unlikely European position to a spot on the fringes of the relegation race does stretch back to time Everton was repeatedly asking to hire Silva.

Funny thing: Perhaps letting him walk would’ve been the right decision.

What Silva did in the first quarter of this season and his lauded attempt to save Hull City last season may recall his overachievement at Estoril in Portugal, but the 40-year-old worked wonders at league powers Sporting CP and Olympiacos.

In the case of the latter, Silva led Thrylos to an absurd record of 38W-3D-7L before quitting after one season.

There’s another piece of the puzzle to consider, too: Watford under owner Gino Pozzo has been quick to change manager, which is a sign the club values — to quote longtime Buffalo basketball coach Reggie Witherspoon — “Jims and Joes more than x’s and o’s.”

As Sam Allardyce, the man who was hired by Everton, has joined Ronald Koeman as bosses unable to get the Toffees’ talented roster humming, it’s worth asking whether both Watford and Everton would’ve been better off had the Silva “transfer” went down at Goodison Park.

Watford has eight losses in 11 matches, handing three points to a variety of teams who’ve struggled to find wins this season: Swansea City, Brighton and Hove Albion, and Huddersfield Town. The Hornets have also drawn Southampton.

Everton under both Koeman and Allardyce has done the opposite: the Toffees have too much talent to religiously fail against the lower clubs. This season, which also saw a short run for caretaker boss David Unsworth, their wins are over Stoke City, Bournemouth, Watford, West Ham, Huddersfield Town, Newcastle and Swansea.

The Toffees big slump has seen a pair of draws with woeful West Bromwich Albion and a loss at Bournemouth.

Which brings us back to Watford under Silva. Despite its long slump, the club is performing in a way more suited for Everton’s talent than the Hornets’ bunch (which certainly isn’t poor). Consider:

Consider that Watford has 49.5 percent possession on the season, behind only Man City, Arsenal, Spurs, Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, and Southampton (Everton has 46.4 and that number has regressed under Allardyce).

Also, Watford is ahead of Everton in pass completion percentage, shots per game, goals, shots allowed per game, and dribbles per game.

All this with the Toffees getting some of the finest goalkeeper performances in the league from Jordan Pickford. His 81 saves are second to Lukasz Fabianski and his seven in the six-yard box are joint-top with Mat Ryan.

So, yeah, Everton probably had the right idea in trying to get Silva, who was obviously interested in the job. The Toffees’ buys of Cenk Tosun and Theo Walcott are only going to up the ante at Goodison Park, and Allardyce does not have the record of getting talent to reach its potential (at least not in a decade).

Everton’s top performers this year according to advanced stats sites WhoScored and Squawka are ranked 82nd in the Premier League (Mason Holgate) and 103rd in the league (Ashley Williams), respectively.

All this goes to not just say that Silva has done a decent job at Watford, but beg why they’ve decided to fire the boss midway through a transfer window. And considering the Hornets would’ve received compensation of some sort for the move, it’s even more of a head scratcher

Multiple reports: Watford set to hire Gracia as manager

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Watford looks set to appoint Javi Gracia to its managerial position, hours after firing Marco Silva and blaming Everton for the manager.

[ MORE: Watford fires Silva, blames Everton ]

Gracia led Malaga to eighth and ninth place finishes in La Liga between 2014-16 before spending last season at Rubin Kazan.

Gracia, 47, has led promotion campaigns in Spain and has plenty of experience with perceived smaller clubs battling the drop zone.

Watford will hope the Hornets don’t reach that point, still five points clear of the drop after flirting with the Top Seven for the first quarter of the Premier League season.

Latest: Sunday medicals for Mkhitaryan, Sanchez

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Henrikh Mkhitaryan has agreed to join Arsenal from Manchester United, clearing the path for Alexis Sanchez to join the Old Trafford set.

[ MORE: 2 Robbies on the deal ]

The BBC is reporting that both players will undergo medicals at their proposed new clubs on Sunday ahead of a straight swap deal.

Sanchez, 29, has scored 80 goals for Arsenal since arriving before the 2014-15 campaign, including 30 last season.

Mkhitaryan turns 30 this summer, and has struggled at Manchester United since posting five assists in his first three matches of the season.

[ MORE: Watford sacks Silva ]

He was, however, a combination of Sanchez and Mesut Ozil in his final season at Borussia Dortmund, scoring 23 goals with 32 assists.

This could be win-win, as Mkhitaryan at his best is a like-for-like replacement for Mesut Ozil should the German leave in the summer and Sanchez is a more proven PL commodity (though his attitude should be a major question for the United room).